Arnold Spirit Jr. (“Junior”) tells about his early life on the Spokane Indian reservation. How doctors predicted he would die from complications of hydrocephalus—his being born with excess spinal fluid on the brain. But, of course, Junior survived. The early condition, however, left Junior with a lisp and stutter. He had too many teeth and had to have some removed, and he is far-sighted in one eye and near-sighted in the other. Worst of all, as a small child he had seizures. Even today, other Indians on the reservation or, as Junior calls it, the “rez,” bully him and call him names like “hydrohead.” Junior’s best friend, Rowdy, often promises to protect him, but Rowdy’s own violent tendencies sometimes prevent him from being all that helpful. Junior’s parents are alcoholics and his sister, Mary, spends all her time in the family basement. Junior loves drawing cartoons, and many of his drawings are included in the book. Rowdy is extremely supportive of Junior’s art, and Junior thinks this proves his and Rowdy’s friendship.
In the summer before their freshman year of high school, Rowdy convinces Junior to go with him to the Spokane powwow. Junior is fourteen. Rowdy promises to protect Junior from any bullies, but, soon after they arrive, Rowdy trips into a van, embarrassing himself. Rowdy takes out his anger by attacking the van with a shovel, but the vandalism scares Junior. Junior runs away into a set of mean, drunk, thirty-year-old triplets. They push him around and beat him up. Later, to make up for having let Junior down, Rowdy sneaks into the triplets’ camp at night and cuts off their long braids, emasculating them. Junior sees it as more proof that Rowdy does the best he can. Soon thereafter, Junior and Rowdy begin their first year at Wellpinit High. Junior is excited to get started and is especially looking forward to his geometry class. But his geometry teacher, Mr. P, gives Junior a textbook that Junior sees was signed by his mother, Agnes Adams, thirty years previously. He throws the textbook in a fit of rage. It hits Mr. P in the face, breaking his nose.
After the textbook incident, Junior is suspended from school. Much to Junior’s surprise, Mr. P comes to Junior’s house to apologize to Junior. Mr. P tells Junior that there is no hope on the reservation, and that the best thing Junior can do for himself is to get off the reservation as quickly as possible. Mr. P says that Junior is smart, but that Mary was even smarter and more talented than Junior until the reservation crushed her spirit. Junior takes Mr. P advice, and, when his parents come home, he tells them he’s decided to go to school in the all-white town of Reardan, some twenty-two miles from home. Junior’s parents agree, and he starts school the next day. Because his family is very poor, sometimes without any money for gas, Junior often has difficulty getting to Reardan. He hitchhikes or gets rides from people like his dad’s friend, Eugene. On his first day, Junior meets his future girlfriend, Penelope. A few days later, the toughest jock, Roger, insults Junior with a racist joke, and Junior punches him in the face. Junior is surprised to find that his action earns him Roger’s respect. Then, Junior’s future friend, Gordy, sticks up for Junior in class.
On the reservation, however, Rowdy and the other Indians feel betrayed. Most react by ignoring Junior, but some are angrier than that. To impress Penelope, Junior decides to raise money for the homeless while trick-or-treating. But, after Junior starts going door-to-door, word gets around that he is carrying money. Junior gets jumped by three boys in masks. Junior fears that Rowdy is one of them. Penelope finds out and donates money in both her and Junior’s names. Then, around Thanksgiving, Mary gets married to a Montana poker player she meets at the Spokane casino, and she moves with him to Montana without saying goodbye to her family. Junior wonders if Mary is competing with him because he managed to get off the reservation. Junior hears from Mary occasionally thereafter by email and letter. In her messages, Mary says she is struggling to find a job, but she remains optimistic.
Later that fall, Junior tries out for the Reardan basketball team and has to play one-on-one against Roger, who is 6’6” and can dunk. It’s a tough match up, but Junior holds his own and is rewarded with a spot on the varsity team. Junior’s team plays an early game against Wellpinit on the reservation where the entire crowd turns its back on Junior when his team enters the gym. While Junior is checking into the game for the first time, a fan throws a quarter at him, hitting him in the head. Junior asks Eugene, an EMT, to stich him up in the locker room, but, just after he checks back into the game, Rowdy fouls Junior so badly he gives Junior a concussion. Reardan loses badly, but, weeks later, in the teams’ next match up at Reardan, Junior’s strong defense leads Reardan to decisive victory. Wellpinit’s season is ruined, and Reardan loses, later, early in the state playoffs.
Then the tragedies begin. Junior’s grandmother, whom Junior admires for her tolerance and generosity, is struck and killed by a drunk driver as she is walking home from a powwow. A white billionaire named Ted makes a pompous speech at her well-attended funeral, and the Indians laugh him off the reservation. Then, Eugene’s friend, Bobby, shoots Eugene in the face over the last sip of a bottle of wine. Later, just when Junior thinks things can’t get any worse, the school guidance counselor calls him into the hall to tell him that Mary has died. Junior’s dad picks him up from school and tells him that Mary and her husband’s trailer caught on fire while the two were passed out from excess drinking. Rowdy blames Junior for Mary’s death, but Junior somehow manages to finish the school year and get a decent report card. He and his family begin to heal, and he promises his Mom that he will never drink. That summer, Rowdy comes to Junior’s house to see if Junior will hang out. The book ends with the two playing a game of one-on-one in the summer heat.